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Paid Links : Rewards & Consequences

(29 September 2008)
Unless you've been on Mars for the past 2 years, you probably know that Google does not like paid links. They are even asking us to report the buyers and sellers of links. Using paid links is now considered a black hat strategy, and while that sounds scary, the facts on the ground demonstrate that link buying is alive and well. And there may be a real opportunity here for the right kind of site.

Link buying is the one black hat activity that is so deeply ingrained in our web culture already, that if Google is going to put a stop to it, they're going to have to face a metastasized monster that is already a dominant player in many markets. They may pull it off. But we doubt it's going to be quick. Especially since we know they can't tell a paid link from a natural one without our help.

What to do?

Look at the risk/reward metric. The biggest risk is that your ranks will be harmed. But Google has stated that it will not penalize sites for buying (guess how many sites would be penalized?), but will instead zero the PR of the sellers. Still we know that toxic inbounds have been found among sloppily purchased links. But we can make an effort to limit that risk, especially knowing that Google will only use active enforcement against the sellers.

Paid links may no longer be a safe playground, but if you know the defensive strategies discussed below, you can address a rank loss due to a links issue very rapidly. If you want to be a player in the paid links arena, you must first accept this fact: you need to pay way more attention to the risks than ever before. If short term rank loss could devastate your enterprise, don't even think about becoming reliant on paid links for rank.

The claim by Google that they were going to address the paid links problem was made over a year ago. Since then we've seen some sellers shut down - mostly small players who had a couple of links that were paying the bills. The really big players, the ones with massive infrastructure, don't seem to have been touched. This even though they've clearly been reported many times - everyone's reporting their competitors and their link structures. But we're not seeing massive PR losses from these big sources. So when you look at risk, it's not that you might be penalized for buying, it's that there may soon be no more paid link juice flowing to your site. The links you buy may ultimately become worthless.

On the reward side, there's no question you can still buy rank. It's a lot more work, and so the costs have risen substantially. But there are high PR sites out there, and the link juice is still flowing.

If you are buying links, the best defensive strategy starts with a solid content base. Without significant content authority, sites can suffer huge rank losses if links pushing rank fail. Those with the least risk from a paid link strategy are those sites that have already achieved ranks on page one or just offshore. Link failure will drop ranks back to these positions. But these sites can benefit hugely at this very moment, because it often takes very little effort to make the leap into productive range, or even dominant ranks, especially if ranks are already close.

Owners of sites positioned in this way need to first know that the effectiveness of paid links may not last, but for sites stuck just out of reach of productive ranks, paid links should not be ignored. The future effectiveness of paid links is uncertain, so act accordingly.

New strategies for link purchases

(from Jabaloni's post) "We need to think about how to protect sites from being harmed by toxic inbound links. Because indiscriminately purchased paid links now involve significant risk, a preemptive approach is required when conducting link buys. For the time being at least, paid links can still be very effective in pushing rank. But there are some important new requirements that need to be imposed on links to reduce their ability to cause harm, and make it easier to remove any bad influence:

- Must be easily removable.

- Never point links to your homepage. If a link structure goes toxic, and you can't reach the person who posted that link to remove it, you will discover a penalty that cannot be lifted. Point to landing pages (better seo anyway) that you can discard if necessary.

- Must be tested for bad neighborhoods - not that you'll find toxic structures, you'll just avoid the ones that have already opened the floodgates to porn, gaming, pharma, etc.

- The linking structure must be tested for trademark suppression. We're seeing link sources with high PR, but trademark suppressed. Not sure what to make of this, but stay away if you see it.

- Never buy system-wide, template, Wordpress themes, site-wide, directory, or any clearly mass-marketer-of-links structure. Only one offs, from content if possible.

- Assume your site will be reported for paid links. Buy accordingly."

For issues related to ownership confidentiality, it is further recommended that link structures NOT BE SHARED with other owned sites.

The ideal inbound text link will be a one-off, not on a directory, from a high PR page with very few links, no competitor links present, no search ads, and genuine document relevancy. These kinds of opportunities are very rare, even when an effort is made to find them, but the more of these qualities in the mix, the better. Since Google can't tell a paid link from a natural one, we especially want links that come from within content. Links are far more likely to appear natural when they are in a sentence, so buy contextual links if you can control the post.


Paid text links will continue to play a powerful role in ranking sites. Google does not like this reality but will not penalize sites for paid links. If you can bear the risk, or feel you can limit that risk enough, there are real opportunities in the paid link realm, provided strict procedures that provide exit strategies are in place. If short term rank loss could significantly harm your business, don't consider any paid link strategy. Use semantic seo only.

(from Rev Sale's post:) "The increase in recent link buys we're seeing is telling us something. New link buyers are betting against rapid change in Google's handling of paid links, but they're loading up just in case the end is near. It's the exact opposite reaction to what Google wanted when they started asking for reports."

Link buying now carries some dangers along with the rewards. Site owners should never take advice from websites as gospel. The opinions expressed on this site may be contrary to the good advice of your consultants in some instances. Your marketing team may have standards and practices that may prohibit you from doing what we discuss. Act only on the advice of your own trusted circle. And please let us know that advice.

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